Building a high-performance project team among a mixture of part-time and full-time members is a challenging task. Consider how much more challenging it is to build a team when members cannot engage in face-to-face interactions. Such would be the case for a virtual project team in which the team members are geographically situated so that they may seldom, if ever, meet face-to-face as a team.
For example, Hewlett-Packard’s integrated circuit business headquarters and a portion of the R&D facilities are located in Palo Alto, California; the two wafer fabrication operations are located in Corvallis, Oregon, and Fort Collins, Colorado; and the packaging assembly process is primarily in Singapore and Korea.
It is not uncommon for professionals at each of these locations to be involved in same project. When team members are spread across different time zones and continents, the opportunity for direct communication is severely limited.
Electronic communication such as the Internet, e-mail, and teleconferencing takes much more importance in virtual project teams because this is the primary means communication.
Virtual Project Team Challenges
Two of the biggest challenges involved in managing a virtual project team are developing trust and effective patterns of communication.
How to establish trust
Trust is difficult to establish in virtual project team management. Unlike working as a traditional team, where members can see whether someone has done what they say they have done, virtual team members depend on the word of distant members. At the same time, it can be difficult to trust someone whom you may have met only one or two times or not at all.
Geographical separation also prohibits the informal social interactions that are often essential to building camaraderie among team members. As one virtual team member put it, “You can’t have a beer together over the internet”.
So how can a project manager facilitate the development of trust within a virtual project team?
First, if it is impossible to hold a face-to-face meeting in the beginning, managers need to orchestrate the exchange of social information—who everyone is and some personal background information during the initial electronic inter-
change. Second, they need to set clear roles for each team member.
Ideally, specific tasks should be assigned to each member so that they can make an immediate contribution to the project. Trust in virtual project teams grows through team member reliability, consistency, and responsiveness.
Finally, the project manager must consistently display enthusiasm and an action orientation in all messages; this spirit will hopefully spread to other virtual project team members.
How to establish effective communication
The second major challenge for managing a virtual project team is to establish effective patterns of communication. E-mail and faxes are great for communicating facts—but not the feelings behind the facts; nor do they allow for real-time communication.
Conference calls and project chat rooms can help, but they also have their limitations. Videoconferencing is a significant improvement over non visual electronic forms of communication. Still, it is a very expensive medium, and real-time interaction is available on only the most advanced and expensive systems. The maxim is match technology to the communication need.
Here are some virtual project team management guidelines developed by 3M for use on their distributed projects:
When to e-mail.
To distribute important information and news in a one-to-one or one-to-many frame of reference.
When to use electronic bulletin boards. To encourage discussion and flush out diversity of opinion on issues.
When to video conference.
Video conference when you need to see each other’s face and expressions. This is important during the early phases of a project, when you are building relationships and developing a common understanding of what needs to be done. Use, again, when working on critical decisions and/or contentious issues.
When to use conference calls.
When people in different locations are working with common documents, presentations, sketches, and models. Use for status report meetings and to sustain social camaraderie.
When to fly.
Fly to build or repair trust. Use travel budget to get all key players together early on to instill commitment to the goals of the project and engage in team-building activities.
Even with the best communication system, managers have to overcome the problem of time zone differences, cultural nuances, and finding a convenient time for people to conference.
Virtual Project Team Solutions
Below are some additional tips for alleviating communication problems and enhancing the performance of the virtual project team:
Keep team members informed on how the overall project is going.
Use shareware or develop a central access point such as either a Web site or LAN account to provide members with updated project schedules. Team members need to know where they fit in the big picture.
Don’t let team members vanish.
Virtual teams often experience problems getting in touch with each other. Use an Internet scheduling software to store members calendars.
Establish a code of conduct to avoid delays.
Team members need to agree not only on what, when, and how information will be shared but also on how and when they will respond to it. Develop a priority system to distinguish messages that require immediate response from those with longer time frames.
Establish clear norms and protocols for surfacing assumptions and conflicts.
Because most communication is non visual, project managers cannot watch body language and facial expressions to develop a sense of what is going on. They need to probe deeper when communicating to force members to explain their viewpoints, actions, and concerns more clearly; they must double-check comprehension.
Share the pain.
Do not require everyone to conform to your time zone and preferences. Rotate meeting times so that all team members have a turn working according to their clock.
To some extent managing a virtual project team is no different from managing a regular project team. The key is working within the constraints of the situation to develop effective ways for team members to interact and combine their talents to complete the project.
Image courtesy of Freepik.